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The ABCs of the ABCs: A Brief History of the Alphabet

Updated on August 5, 2013

You’ve probably sung the ABC song since you were barely out of diapers. You’ve spent countless hours in kindergarten hearing “A is for Apple” and “B is for Box” Knowing your letters is how you’re even reading this article. The concept of an alphabet has completely saturated Western civilization. So how did this phenomenon come to be? How did a “D” come to mean a [d] sound or a “N” come to mean [n]? How did our A to Z (or A to W or A to Я, as the case may be) come into existence? To answer that, we must step back to the dawn of human civilization.


Write Like An Egyptian

Most, if not all, modern alphabets can be traced back to ancient Egypt, who had writing as early as 3400 BC. This writing continued to develop until by the 4th century BC, there were more than 5000 glyphs, each representing either 1, 2 or 3 consonants. (Vowels were not written at this point, making Egyptian what is called an abjad.) The hieroglyphs that are popularly known today were used mainly for monumental or funerary writings. The average Egyptian in the street would have used hieratic, a kind of “cursive” form of hieroglyphs, for things such as commerce and educational texts. Eventually, hieratic was all but replaced by demotic writing, a writing derived from a northern variety of hieratic, which in turn was replaced by the Latin and Greek alphabets (more on those later). Hieroglyphs would eventually fall into disuse in Egypt by the 4th century AD, but some 1 consonant glyphs, known as unilaterals, would find new life elsewhere.

Leaving the Nest

That elsewhere was the cultures slightly east of Egypt, in the Sinai region, who appropriated the Egyptian writing for their own use. They took Egyptian glyphs (such as the glyph showing a river) and used it to represent the first letter of the word for what the glyphs represented in their language (in this case, ‘m’ for mem, or water). This is called the acrophonic principle. It would be like if we wrote the word “pen” using a picture of a pear, an elephant and a net. Because there so few examples of this writing in existence, very little can be conclusively known. However, it is widely believed that this Proto-Semitic writing, as it is called, represents an intermediate step between Egyptian writing and the soon-to-be Phoenician alphabet. Over time, Proto-Semitic writing began to look less like pictures and became more abstract (e.g. the ‘river’ glyph was simplified to four strokes, resembling a modern-day “M”), giving rise to the Phoenician alphabet. The more phonetic nature of this writing system allowed writing and literacy to be accessible to more of the population rather than only the priests and aristocracy. The ancient working class, such as merchants, began to use the Phoenician alphabet in bookkeeping and records. Another group which began to use the Phoenician alphabet was the powerful Phoenician maritime industry. As the Phoenicians sailed to various Mediterranean ports, they carried their writing with them, which was then adopted by the cultures they encountered. As a result of this dissemination, the Phoenician alphabet soon split into three major groups: Aramaic (which gave rise to Arabic and Modern Hebrew), Old Hebrew (now extinct) and Greek.


Dotting the Qaafs

When the Mesopotamia region was conquered by the First Persian Empire, the Aramaic language became the lingua franca of area and with it, the Aramaic writing system, based on the Phoenician alphabet. One group, called the Nabataeans, settled in Petra (in modern-day Jordan) where they used a kind of “cursive” variation of Aramaic for general use on papyrus, dating as far back as AD 512. It was not until the rise of Islam, however, that this writing began to develop into the Arabic alphabet we know today. As far back as AD 643, in order to avoid any ambiguities in the Qur’an, diacritic dots were used by Koranic scholars to distinguish similar looking letters. In the sixth and seventh centuries, vowel diacritics were added to avoid any further confusions. While the diacritic dots are still used in Modern Arabic, the vowel diacritics are not often used outside of the Qur’an and Arabic language textbooks.


Mazel Tov! It’s an Alphabet!

Aramaic’s cousin, the Old Hebrew alphabet, was a different animal than the Hebrew writing used today. In inscriptions dating back to the tenth century BC, Hebrew writing more closely resembled the Phoenician alphabet, more curved than Modern Hebrew. It was during the Babylonian exile in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, that Hebrews adopted the more familiar squarish writing based on Aramaic, even after the return from captivity. So much so, that the Old Hebrew script disappeared entirely by the first century AD in favor of the Aramaic based alphabet. In the Middle Ages, with the rise of Christianity and Islam, Hebrew began to fade from the scene. However, it has made a comeback when the Hebrew language was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries.


It’s All Greek to Me!

On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Greeks used Linear B (adapted from the Minoan syllabary) as early as c.1500 BC, but this was discarded by c.1200 BC as it proved to be unsuitable for the Greek language. Around the 9th century BC, the Greeks adopted the alphabet used by Phoenician traders, thereby introducing the alphabet to Europe. This writing system quickly caught on in Greece as it was a more precise writing than Linear B. The Greeks were also the first to introduce vowels as a part of the alphabet proper, rather than as optional diacritics, using Phoenician letters for sounds not found in Greek. For example, ’aleph, which represented a glottal stop in Phoenician, became alpha which represented an [a] sound. As the alphabet spread across Greece, regional variations began to emerge, which included Euboean, Cretan, Ionic and Corinthian. A region-wide consensus established the Ionic variation as the “standard” after the end of the Peloponnesian War c. 403BC. Even though the Ionic variation became dominant, even up to the present day, the Eubonean variation traveled west for a new life among the Etruscans.


When in Rome…

After the Etruscans (whose language remains somewhat of a mystery) adopted the Eubonean alphabet (with some minor changes) for their own use, it wasn’t long before it spread to a little Latin town on the Tiber River called Rome and by the 3rd century BC, it had evolved practically into the Latin alphabet used today. As Rome grew to encompass most of Europe, their alphabet went with them, becoming the writing systems in modern-day Italy, France and western Europe. Later, with the rise of Western Christianity, the Latin alphabet made its way into northern Europe (modern-day Germany and England) and to the South and West Slavic peoples. During the Age of Exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Latin alphabet soon spread to the Americas, Australia, Africa and Asia (pinyin in China and romanji in Japan). In 1928, as a part of a reformation movement in Turkey, the Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic alphabet in writing Turkish. As it stands today, the Latin alphabet is the most widely used alphabet in the world.


Easy as AБB

The origins of the late-comer alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet, are somewhat in dispute. While it is agreed that its origins can be traced back to a pair of ninth century missionaries named Cyril and Methodius, some say the Cyrillic alphabet was commissioned by Boris I of Bulgaria when Christianity became the official state religion, while others believe it was developed by students of Cyril and Methodius, based on their Glagothic script. Whatever its origins, the alphabet itself is derived mainly from Greek, with some Hebrew used for sibilants. The Cyrillic alphabet spread to other Slavic peoples, the Russians, the Serbs, etc., eventually dominating eastern Europe. During the time of the Soviet Union, Cyrillic, or some variation of it, was used to write far eastern languages such as Mongolian and the Turkic languages in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. However, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Mongolian, for one, has done away with Cyrillic and revived the old Mongolian writing.

From ancient temple walls to your computer screen, the alphabet has revolutionized writing for almost the entire world, as well as brought literacy to the masses. Not to mention spelling bees and the ABC song…



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